2017-05-13 / Features

HANDMADE

Timberlake resident launches handmade birch bark canoe
photos and story BY BILL WILLCOX
COURIER-TIMES STA FF WRITER

The early morning mist was settling over Lake Michie in Durham County when a white pickup truck pulled into the parking lot with a remarkable craft tied on top.

It was an authentic birch bark canoe, built in the same manner as Native Americans employed for centuries before white man ever set foot on the continent.

Royall Williams hopped out of the driver’s seat, barely able to contain his excitement. This was the inaugural vogage of the craft.

The Timberlake resident and ex-Marine had devoted over 400 hours to build the canoe, a marvel of prehistoric technology.

“Did you make that yourself ?” the park ranger asked before informing Royall he would need to pay a launch fee like everybody else.

After taking care of the paperwork, Royall carried his creation to the water’s edge and gingerly stepped inside, careful to maintain his center of gravity as he sat down and pushed off.


Royall Williams launches and paddles his canoe during its first outing on Friday, May 12, in Lake Michie. He spent over 400 hours completing the canoe, which is built just like Native Americans did centuries ago. Royall Williams launches and paddles his canoe during its first outing on Friday, May 12, in Lake Michie. He spent over 400 hours completing the canoe, which is built just like Native Americans did centuries ago. The canoe responded well to his strong oar strokes and after 30 minutes of paddling, it was watertight. It was sealed with pine pitch. Only a cup full of water sloshed in the bottom, easily patched in time for the next outing.

“I am intimately associated with this canoe,” he said. “Every little thing about it I know. It is really incredible.”

Williams had a career in law enforcement and corrections before retiring three years ago and devoting himself to his project.

In order to learn how to build the canoe, he drove four days across the country to a school in Spokane, Washington. He studied intensively 16 hours a day for two weeks.

The school normally has its students live in teepees and bathe in a river, but due to nearby wildfires that summer, they substituted a Lewis and Clark style tent.

Williams spent many hours by a campfire in Spokane, splitting pine roots with his fingernails to get just the right thickness, 500 feet in total, which he then used as stitching on the canoe, punching the root through the birch bark with a stick.

“Can you guess how many hours it took me to do that stitching?” he asked. “You’ve got to be a patient fellow. It takes forever.”

The seams are waterproofed with hot spruce or pine resin gathered and applied with a stick.

During travel, paddlers re-applied resin almost daily to keep the canoe watertight. A more durable pine pitch can be made by mixing the resin with charcoal and rabbit scat, which then hardens to an epoxy-like toughness.

The birch bark canoe was especially important in Canada, and provided the principal means of water transportation for Native Americans of the eastern woodlands, and later Europeans involved in the fur trade. It was praised for its “elegance and speed,” by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, while artist and author Edwin Tappan Adney, who dedicated much of his life to the preservation of traditional canoe-making techniques, claimed that European boats were “clumsy” and “utterly useless” by comparison, according to Historica Canada.

Williams plans on enjoying the canoe for a while and then asking the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh if they might want to put the canoe on display for a couple of weeks.

“The chance of somebody seeing something like this is near zero,” he said. “They’re just not out there.”

That became obvious when he and his wife drove into Hillsborough recently to shop at Weaver Street Market and had the canoe strapped to the top of the car.

“I had a crowd out there just like that,” he said. “One guy came over and said, ‘My God, this is a piece of art.’”

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